Voice, Visibility and Dignity for Migrant Workers – The Kerala story and why it matters to tens of millions of workers across India

Vakkom Moulavi Foundation Trust > Voice, Visibility and Dignity for Migrant Workers – The Kerala story and why it matters to tens of millions of workers across India

Seven months after millions of migrant workers abandoned our cities to walk back hundreds of miles in the searing heat to their villages, their sordid stories have all but been forgotten.  A ‘virtual roundtable’ convened by VMFT highlighted the policies, programs, and actions that need to be in place to prevent such disasters in the future.  The report of the roundtable in Hindi, Avaaz, Pehchaan aur Atma Samaan: Pravasi Shramik, Unka Bhavishya, Unka Adhikaar – Ek Rooprekha was released on 22 January 2021 by senior journalist Shri Sudeep Thakur, Resident Editor,  Amar Ujala, and senior journalist Shri Ashutosh, Founder, Satya Hindi.

Other speakers at the event included Professor Harishwar Dayal, Director-In-Chief, Center for Fiscal Studies, Government of Jharkhand, Shri Santosh K. Singh, Indian Express, Patna, Shri Mukesh Balyogi, Hindustan, Ranchi,  Prof. V.K. Damodaran, President of VMFT, and Dr. Sajitha Bashir, Vice-Chair of VMFT. The webinar was attended by journalists, NGOs, and academics. Dr. Manisha Priyam, Associate Professor, National University of Education Planning and Administration, moderated the webinar.

Release of Hindi publication “Voice, Visibility and Dignity – Towards a Rights-Based Framework for Migrant Workers”. The meeting video link available here. Click Here

 The report presents the measures that the society and the government in Kerala had taken during the crisis, as a humane response to alleviate their pains and problems. This included the identification of tens of thousands of individual workers in distress spread across the length and breadth of the state, and providing them with health services, food, and shelter as well as transport back to their home states.  The coordinated involvement of the state government, NGOs, and local governments constituted the core of the swift response in the state.  The Kerala response showed what could be done even with limited time and limited financial and other resources to prevent a disaster that could have turned into a calamity.

Speaking at the release event, Sudeep Thakur said, “The VMFT Report explains how Kerala was able to set up multilingual call centres through which migrant workers could speak with government officials in their own language. This type of action is a lesson for other states.”  “

The migrant crisis of 2020 exposed the precariousness and vulnerability of this huge section of the Indian working population.  “This crisis revealed the weaknesses in our developmental model and showed that migrant workers have no place in it. The roots of this migrant crisis lie in the economic policies adopted in the nineties, which placed a special emphasis on urbanization. Right now, together with changes in policy, there is a need to end the crisis of trust,” emphasized Sudeep Thakur.

Creating a rights-based framework for migrants’ welfare is essential, as millions of these unorganized workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and the north-eastern states return to work. However, this will not happen unless the voices of the migrant workers are heard widely, their participation in the formulation of policies and programs and in the creation of a legal framework is ensured, and their stories are reflected strongly in the media nationwide.

The extent to which we are able to protect the rights and dignity of these workers as fellow citizens will show to the wide world that we understand how interdependent we are as members of a just society” said Prof. V. K. Damodaran, a long-time social and environmental activist and President of VMFT. “These workers need access to decent accommodation, adequate wages, health and education services for their wards, social security benefits accessed from anywhere they are, as well as all the legal protections available for any Indian citizen.”

The report highlights key action areas as follows:

Supporting the media with resources:

  • Share the Kerala experience in detail from multiple angles for different audiences through print and electronic media and social media in particular.
  • Create resources for independent journalists and editors to analyze in-depth the policies and governance issues related to migrant labor.
  • Highlight the gender aspects and the issues relating to children of migrant workers in the media.
  • Create forums to listen directly to the voices of migrant workers.

Participatory formulation of policies and programs:

  • Undertake a more detailed survey of the profile of interstate migrants in all destination states, including that of women and children, focusing on the socio-economic background, length of stay, motivations, and aspirations, and related aspects.
  • Strengthen policies of “receiving” State Governments to ensure social security, minimum standards of accommodation and access to health and education.
  • Move towards a national framework for migrants, focused on their rights, with the portability of benefits and common standards.
  • Include safeguards to ensure that data collection systems do not foster stigmatization and surveillance.

Strengthening the legal framework for inter-state migrants:

  • Strengthen the provisions and implementation of the national Bonded Labour Rehabilitation Act, the Minimum Wage Act and the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act.

In Kerala, workers from beyond the state borders already represent 10 percent of the population and the percentage is likely to go up, given the social development on the ground, and our millenia old tradition of welcoming for people from afar. For us, strengthening the rights-based framework is essential for our society and culture,” noted Prof. V.K. Damodaran.

VMFT is currently following up on the recommendations of the report together with other concerned organizations and individuals, and any assistance from other interested groups and media are most welcome in furthering these efforts.